The livelihood impacts of Indian watershed management programmes

During the 1990s, Indian rural development policies increasingly decentralized the responsibility for natural resources management to the community level. At the end of the 1990s, micro-watershed development was attracting more than US$450 million of central government funding a year, for numerous projects implemented by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Watershed management in India has evolved since the 1970s and early 1980s, when it was based on biophysical criteria; since the late 1980s the focus has been on watershed development (WSD). The Ministry of Rural Areas and Employment issued WSD guidelines, which cover productive, social, ecological/environmental and equity objectives.

In the late 1990s, livelihoods analysis was used to study the impact of WSD on rural livelihoods, focusing on the extent to which WSD activities result in new livelihood opportunities and the degrees to which these opportunities are equitably distributed and sustainable.

The study found that WSD’s potential impact on household assets increased as WSD approaches evolved from externally imposed biophysical interventions towards greater participation and a broader range of activities. This affected all five asset types in the sustainable livelihood framework, but benefits were not always evenly distributed. For example, WSD-promoted soil and water management works (physical assets) benefited better-off landholders disproportionately, because they were able to take advantage of the enhanced availability of natural capital assets.

The study was particularly concerned about poorer groups’ access to common pool resources (CPRs). WSD projects established rules of access to CPRs and collaborative agreements for their community management, but the study questioned the extent to which the poor retained access to CPRs after projects finished, and the extent to which short-term losses of access to CPRs were outweighed by longer-term gains.

WSD initiatives opened up new opportunities for livelihood strategies by supporting agricultural intensification processes. New labour opportunities were created by increased crop intensity and, particularly, changes in the livestock sector, in which restricted access to CPRs encouraged more stall-feeding of both large and small ruminants. Intensification also had important intrahousehold implications, however: while men usually appropriated the gains from increased production of cash crops such as sugar cane and cotton, women bore most of the increased workload.

WSD initiatives also provided new opportunities for households to diversify their livelihood strategies. NGO projects promoted diversification through self-help groups for women, the landless and other marginal groups, with activities ranging from traditional crafts (leaf plate making, weaving, basket making, etc.) to mushroom cultivation and forestry activities. These products generally have inelastic demand, however, so their scope for increasing incomes is limited.

The study also assessed the compatibility of WSD with existing livelihood strategies. In India, migration is one of the most important means of diversifying rural livelihoods for the poor. WSD initiatives that involved new institutions such as watershed committees therefore ended up excluding many of the poorest people, who had migrated and were absent from their villages.

Overall, the study concluded that watershed-based approaches have led to improvements in rural livelihoods. They should not be considered as a panacea, however: the productivity gains of pilot projects have been less extensive at the wider scale, and links between productivity gains and livelihoods are complex and poorly understood. Of most concern is the fact that productivity gains can work against the livelihood strategies of certain groups, particularly the poor. The greatest challenge seems to be in achieving distributional equity between the poor and the better-off and between men and women. This requires careful and continuous vigilance.

From a methodological point of view, the study demonstrated that a livelihoods perspective can promote more explicit analysis of the ways in which watershed management directly and indirectly affects people’s livelihoods. It encourages broader and more structured assessment of the impacts relevant to local people. This can help practitioners and decision-makers to adjust their approaches and enhance the socio-economic impacts of watershed management activities, although these may be incremental and subject to other sectoral goals.

Adapted from C. Turton. 2000. Enhancing livelihoods through participatory watershed development in India. London, Overseas Development Institute.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007